Emotional labour – An occupational hazard

By Capt. Menaka Fernando
Almost half of air stewardesses have been subjected to lewd behaviour and offensive remarks from their colleagues and managers, and more than one in five say they have been sexually harassed by a passenger.

In private life, we try to induce or suppress love, envy, and anger based on our private mutual understandings of feeling rules; we make acts of emotion management. But what occurs when we have to manage our emotions in the public world of work, more so in the case of vulnerable groups of public-contact workers such as flight attendants and nurses?

For instance, the flight attendant’s job is to deliver a service and create further demand for it, to enhance the status of the customer and be “nicer than natural.” Many men and women serve as flight attendants that call for substantial emotional labour and they are trained in techniques of emotion management that serve the commercial purpose of the organisation.

Just as we seldom recognise or understood emotional labour, we often fail to appreciate its cost to those who do it for a living. Like a physical labourer who becomes estranged from what he or she makes, an emotional labourer, such as a flight attendant, can become estranged not only from his/her own expressions of feeling (‘put-on’ smile), but also from what he/she actually feels (managed friendliness).

This estrangement, though a valuable defence against stress, is also an important occupational hazard, because it is through our feelings that we are connected with those around us.

Most airlines have clear rules on how cabin crew ought to behave towards passengers. In some airlines crew are graded based on how often they communicate with passengers; especially in business and first class cabins, crew are expected to strike a conversation with every passenger and refer to each of them by their name.

It is at times like this that Flight attendants world over are often faced with catch 22 situations because one can be torn between work rules and reality. “If you chat, some men think you are hitting on them and some wives get jealous, but if you don’t chat you may be accused of discriminating among passengers,” said one stewardess.

Even though estranged from feeling and under ‘managed friendliness,’ having to assess the situation first before chatting with a male or female passenger is extremely daunting. A case in point is the recent incident when a stewardess was assaulted by the wife of a chairman of a powerful organisation on board a Singapore Airlines flight.

The alleged assault is said to have taken place in the business class cabin of a plane bound for Tokyo. The said wife of the businessman apparently became upset when the stewardess was serving her husband during the flight. She had shouted at the stewardess, “Why are you talking to my husband?” The SIA stewardess was seeking unspecified damages for “emotional and mental distress.”

Herein lies an exemplary catch 22 scenario; a case of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” Conversely, at the other end of the emotional spectrum, a key job hazard is unwanted attention from lecherous men. One pretty ‘Kingfisher’ stewardess commented that she encounters such men at least once in every three flights.

Another Malaysian girl explained how a man repeatedly dropped his menu on purpose and asked her to pick it up for him. “He’d peep down my kebaya top each time I bent down,” she said. Male stewards are not spared too. “A male passenger stroked my thigh as I was serving food,” said an ex-steward from our own national carrier.

In countries such as Singapore and Malaysia laws exist to curb sexual harassment. For instance, an Australian who was recently arrested at Kuala Lumpur airport for molesting a flight attendant on a Malaysian Airlines flight was remanded for six days for investigation.

“The Australian, who had several drinks during the six-hour flight from Sydney, allegedly groped the 29-year-old stewardess’s buttocks while walking back to his seat along the aisle,” reported the Star newspaper. The man and his girlfriend apologised for the incident after an in-flight supervisor approached them for clarification, but the captain had already contacted security officials at the airport. In Singapore too, any incident regarding ‘outrage of modesty’ is reported to the Police who will meet the aircraft upon arrival.

While flight attendants suffer unusually high levels of sexual harassment, they are often encouraged to ignore it by some airlines. I recall an article about Delta’s ridiculous policies whereby they encourage sexual harassment of female flight attendants as part of their image of “southern hospitality.”

Allowing such incidents to pass without disciplinary action would only encourage continued harassment of workers who aren’t looking to be “amorous” with their customers. Workplaces should be less sexualised, in order to maintain a healthy employee/employer relationship and employee/customer relationship.